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What CEOs Know: Adam Bryant Visits "The Corner Office"

Adam Bryant's "Corner Office" column in the New York Times is a master class, an indispensable opportunity to get the best of what some of the most innovative and resourceful top executives have learned. Now it is a book, illuminating the recurring themes from those interviews with wit, insight, and clarity.

Adam generously included some of my thoughts in his book and in return I asked him to answer some of my questions about what he had learned.

Is talent for leadership nature or nurture? Did you find that the people you spoke to had shown leadership qualities all their lives or was it something they learned from people around them?
Many of them were in leadership roles early on, but others weren't until college or in their first jobs. I do think it's a little bit of both. There are some x-factors that leaders have â€" including a passion for bringing people together and getting them excited about a shared goal -- but leadership also has to be learned.

The CEOs I interviewed were quite open about the fact that it took them many years before they felt comfortable as a leader, including finding that balance between being friendly with their employees, but not too friendly. Learning how to lead is a process that never ends, and the ones who recognize that, I think, are better able to adapt to the rapid changes in the business world. The ones who say, "This is how I lead, this is my style, period," are much more likely to be short-timers.

Interesting CEO mistakes»

How CEOs screwed up
What were some of the most interesting mistakes you heard about in your interviews?
My discussions about mistakes with the CEOs tended to revolve around people. They talked about hiring people early on who seemed like talented stars, only to learn they were destructive to the corporate culture. Now they want team players.

Many said that they used to spend too much time trying to help somebody they hired succeed, when the fit was clearly wrong. Or they were so eager to fill a position that they jumped at hiring somebody just to get a warm body in the chair, only to regret it later. Through experience, many of them eventually adopted the same rule: Hire slow, fire fast.

How do the business leaders you interviewed assess risk?
The most succinct approach to risk that I heard was from Dan Amos of Aflac. Here is what he said on the subject:

I majored in risk management and insurance, and there were three principles: don't risk a lot for a little, don't risk more than you can afford to lose, and consider the odds. And in everything I've done in business, I've always used those principles as the guiding light.
But other CEOs spoke about how they had to learn to deal with risk, in the broadest sense, as they moved higher in their organizations. They no longer had the luxury of time to research decisions as thoroughly as they could in their previous jobs.

How to make better decisions»

Decide quickly and follow your gut
Here's what Debra Lee of BET Networks had to say about her jump from general counsel to chief operating officer:
As general counsel, you're taught research, research, find out every case, find out every opinion, think about it. It's almost like you're a judge. So when I went from being general counsel to C.O.O., that's the way I first approached it. I'd go into senior staff meetings and I'd listen to advertising and sales folks, I'd listen to the programmers, I'd listen to everyone. And then my job was to go away, think about it and make a decision. Well, that doesn't work. By that time, they're all going off in five different directions. I had to learn to make decisions quicker on the spot and follow my gut. You're not going to have all the information. You're not going to be able to run the numbers and come up with the perfect answers.
What did you learn from them about effective communication?
A few things. Many of them spoke about how they learned to micromanage less over time. In the past, they might have explained to somebody specifically how to do something, they learned to instead be more clear about the goal, but give people far more latitude about how they reached it â€" in other words, more descriptive, less prescriptive.

For meetings, several CEOs spoke of the importance of being "present." With all the distractions they face, with all the pressures bearing down on them, they recognize the importance and power of simply listening carefully. It's how they show people they care. It's how they get people to open up and tell them what's really going on inside their companies.

Spying out the best information»

Becoming a spy at your own company
How do they find and evaluate the information they use to make decisions?
Many of them are keenly aware of the ivory-tower phenomenon, and make time to develop relationships with people throughout the company. They schedule walking around time. They will fly to far-flung offices to have smaller group meetings with employees, and larger town-hall discussions. They're aware that information gets sanitized on the way to their office, and that people just want to give great news.

Another strategy for combating this tendency is that they state explicitly to their staff that if there is a problem, they want to hear about it sooner rather than later. Larry Kellner, the former CEO of Continental Airlines, described his approach this way:

When something is going wrong, they have to feel they can flag it as quickly as when it's going right, so that you can shift the organization and try to solve the problem. It's a leadership structure that says, 'Look, I don't care how bad the situation is -- the sooner you catch it, the better.' But if you've known about it for months and have been hoping against hope that all your other contingencies would solve the problem and you've burned up all our opportunities to solve it, I'm going to be a whole lot more unhappy.
What did they study in school -- other than business?
There was a surprising range of backgrounds, and many of the CEOs seemed genuinely surprised that they ended up in the jobs they have. Many of them started out in theater, film, teaching, TV production. Their personal stories were reminders about the power of serendipity -- chance encounters that changed the course of their careers.

But the one constant, I think, is that these people feel a deep sense of ownership and responsibility for whatever job they're doing. And because they deliver time and again, they are rewarded with more responsibilities and promotions.

How to do better»

Giving feedback... and thanks
What are some of their best ideas for showing appreciation? For correcting a mistake?
They said it's important sometimes to simply say "thank you" to the best performers. I found this passage from my interview with Dan Rosensweig of Chegg particularly insightful:
We spend a lot of time in all of the companies that I run or work in making sure we know who the star performers are, rather than forcing them to send an e-mail or come see you or brag about themselves, which they are really uncomfortable doing. I call them and say: "How are you? I understand that you are a star performer. You're doing great and here are the two or three things that you are doing. You are knocking the cover off the ball. I just want to say thank you and let you know you have an open dialogue if there is other stuff that you think we need to be doing." So I do a lot more of that because I know I would appreciate it. I've learned that they appreciate it because they then can focus on doing the job and not worry about whether people are noticing.
On the best way to correct mistakes: I think a lot of it comes back to not what you say, but how you say it. Many of the CEOs said that the best way to show an employee you care is to give them feedback, but to present it in a way that a coach would -- here's something I noticed, and here's how you can do better -- rather than as criticism. Many of the CEOs have this attitude that feedback is a gift, and they've welcomed it throughout their careers, and try to do the same for others.

A lot of people avoid such discussions because they are afraid of confrontation, but I think employees pick up pretty quickly on whether the boss is on their side and has their best interests at heart. That's what a mentor is, after all, right?

What is the best way to make use of the board?
I heard an interesting insight from a couple of the CEOs about how they changed the way they interacted with their boards. Early on, they focused on simply presenting to them. Over time, they learned a more useful approach: To present the board with a problem, a question, a challenge that the CEO was already wrestling with. The CEOs said it made for a much more engaged and constructive discussion, and gave the directors an opportunity to feel like they were adding value to the organization beyond giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating of a predetermined strategy.


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